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Thailand-EU free trade talks will kick off next week

Thai civil society demonstrated urging the Government to leave TRIPs Plus, Alcohol and Investment out of the negotiation with the European Union.
Warangkana Rattanarat
4.3.2013

Next week (6-7 March 2013) Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the trade negotiation team will visit Brussels to kick off the FTA (Free Trade Agreement) negotiations with the European Union. More than a thousand people, who are people living with HIV/Aids, chronic diseases patients, small-scale farmers, students and anti alcohol consumers gathered in front of the Government's House yesterday (28 February 2013) asking the officials and the Prime Minister to take the provisions of TRIPS-plus, alcohol and the international dispute settlement mechanism in the investment chapter out from the negotiation table.

The FTA negotiation with EU is not a new issue for Thailand. The FTA was first time launched since 2007 under the region to region modality between EU and ASEAN covering ten country members. However, in 2010 EU announced the suspension of this process by saying that the negotiation had gone slow and they had concerns over human rights issues in Mynmar. Then, the bilateral talks with the 'forerunners' or economically advance countries such as Singpore, Malaysia, Philipinnes, Thailand, Vietnam have been quickly replaced.

The one-one style proved to be much faster and more efficient for EU to command the process, but on the other hand this split the unity among these ASEAN countries by creating an atmosphere of competition within the group and a fear of missing the train.

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For Thailand due to its unstable political situation during the past years, the FTA with EU had also been paused. But it was quickly revived under this current government. After the visit to Europe in last July, Prime Minister Yingluk announced that she wanted to have the talk with EU as soon as possible, and a few months after that, the public consultations had been hasty arranged, the negotiation framework was quickly developed and rapidly passed the parliament consideration.

The Prime Minister said that the negotiation with EU should be concluded within one year and a half. “If it is so, this FTA is going to be the quickest FTA that Thailand ever had”, said Jacqueschai Chomthongdi, a leader of the Thai organization FTA Watch. FTA Watch is also concerned that the upcoming process of the negotiations will be nontransparent and will have lack of meaningful participation of potentially affected groups.

To understand this rapid move from the Thai government side, it could relate to the fact that Thailand is going to be cut off from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP), which will expire in 2014. Thai exporters, especially those in agribusiness claim that they will lose nearly 80 billion Baht. Big agribusiness corporations have put pressure on the government to conclude the FTA with EU in order to have a smooth ending from GSP and to enjoy a low tariff rate privilege offered by the FTA.

Then, what is the interest of EU for this talk? It seems that EU is interested in something beyond trading of commodities: focusing on Intellectual Property Rights in medicine and biodiversity, protection of EU's investments  in Thailand and arbitration for international dispute settlement between state and the private sector.

All these are new subjects in the bilateral negotiations as they go much beyond the World Trade Organizations agreements, including provisions of TRIPS-plus that involves patent term extension from 20 years to 25 years, data exclusivity, and border measures. These agendas of EU have caused a great worry among Thais that the FTA will cause long-lasting adverse effects to the country and immense amount of budget that the government has to compensate in future.

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Associate Professor Dr. Jiraporn Limpananont, a retired lecturer from Pharmaceutical Science Faculty at the Chulalongkorn Univerity commented that "Trade talks should aim to promote freer environment for trading between countries, but with the TRIPS-plus provisions, which EU is now demanding from their counterpart, they will lead to monopolization and preventing fair competition in drug industry. Further, TRIPS-plus seriously violates basic human rights principles as it destroys opportunity of people, especially poor people to get access to medicine that saves their lives".

Recognizing the immense impact of the TRIPS-Plus provisions, on 12 July 2007 European Parliament issued a resolution to refrain TRIPS-plus from the trade negotiation. Sadly, it looks like the trade and investment wing of the EU is not so much aware and respect the resolution.

Asking what should member states of EU and the civil society do to help, Dr. Jiraporn said: "I'd like to see all EU member countries, including Finnish representative in European Paliament and Finnish Government take some actions to urge the Europen Commission on Trade to respect and follow the resolution and to not force their partners to accept this inhumane TRIPS-plus."

So, as a final remark here is a slogan from the demonstration – "Don't trade away people lives".

Case interview

What does this mean in practice and how is it going to affect the lives of normal people?

Na (not her real name), a HIV/Aids patient from a western province of Thailand, said that in the past she had to pay as high as 12,000 baht a month for medicine. As a farmer, this amount of money is very high for her. She often ran out of money to buy her medicine. Thanks to the production of combined virus killer pills produced by the Government Pharmaceutical Office (GPO) of Thailand and the universal health care scheme, now she can have a free access to those essential medicine, which help her to have good health.

And how the provisions of TRIPS-plus would affect your life?

"The drug price will be much more expensive and beyond my access", Na says. "As a HIV/Aids patient, we need so many kinds of medicine because our body resists the drug after using them for sometime. If I have to use new medicines that are patented, it will be very expensive. For example, this medicine – Lopinavir/Ritonavir, it used to be as high as 10,000 baht. Luckily, when its patent's life was ended, the GPO then could produce it as generic drug, halving its price to only 5,000 baht. And for those HIV/Aids patients, who are under the government's HIV/Aids supporting scheme, we could get it free of charge."

"Imagine, if the patent term of this drug was to get longer and GPO could not get access to the information on how the drug was produced, today I had no idea how I could afford to buy it."

Na concluded that if there is no access to medicine for HIV/Aids patients or any patient, it simply means people are very soon going to die.